Following a rest day of high drama, failure to launch and running against the storm which I’ll write about later. Today we returned to our regularly scheduled program.
With the weather closed in overnight and little hope of moving on, this was a day not to forget the foul weather gear. Switching our poor excuse for language from French to Italian we pass over the border, a solitary faded line in the Mont Blanc tunnel indicating you’re now in Italy. Well and truly on our way to one of the most picturesque of the Mont Blanc or should I say Monte Bianco valleys, the Italian Val Ferret.
The summit edge of Mont Blanc defines the border, with France predominantly claiming it. Although their has been consternation over the years with wars and victories redefining the Italian / Franco border, in the 21st century the towns of Courmayeur in Italy and St Gervais in France jointly manage it. Even though the village of Chamonix arguably has the greatest access and amenity.
Piercing the tunnel, light invades the dim as eyes adjust and we pop out the other side of the mountain. Skies laden with grey cloud meet us as we lay sight of the massive glacial moraines from times past. Perched precariously on their flank is the sanctuary of Notre Dame de Guérison originally built in the 1500’s and most recently renovated in the 1860’s.
Bearing to the left we head up the Val Ferret and the tiny place of Lavachey.
In far flung Australia and having never been in the valley we planned to use our day off to take a bus from Chamonix to Courmayeur and then up to Lavachey walking to Refugio Elena, the Tete Ferret and then back to Bonatti for the night, catching the team the next day. Clearly sitting in the home office the 15km walk and 2700m altitude all looked easier on screen than in reality. Suffice to say we didn’t follow through with the plan.
Chalet Val Ferret is set low in the valley which would come to remind us of the Lauterbrunnen valley in Switzerland, with its flat wide belly and large impending rock walls. The Val Ferret is punctuated in the middle by the Col de Ferret, which separates the Swiss and Italian sides. On the Italian side the valley closes up near Refugio Elena and the steep walk up behind it to the Col and then the Tete de Ferret.
Today we’re starting about three quarters of the way in and walking the balcony through to Rifugio Bonatti and then down towards Planpinceux. If we keep our pace we’ve all been told their is Gelati at the end!
The weather here is quite different as is the landscape. Monte Bianco’s massif rises tall and sharp with the rocky needles of the Petites and Grandes Jorasses touching all the way to the valley floor, hosting melting glaciers high on their flanks. Shrouded in cloud that comes and goes it’s a reminder of how imposing this mountain range is. Juxtaposed with this is the meadow flowered hillside we’re walking on. I’m not much into botany but even the flora is different here.
Making our way behind the Chalet Val Ferret we start the winding path climbing to the balcony, an all to familiar beginning to our walks. At this low altitude the air is moist and our bodies heat up quickly.
The walk is a grind but every time the trail turns and you see the Grandes Jorasses you’re lost again in its gaze. Pain seems to escape your body as you are transported to the top of these majestic needles, their glaciers on a scale words cannot describe with views that take your breath away.
For a short period we walk towards the Col de Ferret. With the unmistakable cinder cone peak of the Tete de Ferret looming large on the horizon, it’s a mix of disappointment and relief.
We’re on the TMB proper here and it feels amazing to think that if we were doing the full Tour du Mont Blanc we would be walking this path, albeit with a bit more speed and intensity to make the next destination.
The Italian side is under developed compared to Chamonix and has more of an Australian wilderness feel to it. The path is dotted with small dwellings, the likes of herders shelters. It’s late Spring and the faint sounds of bells can be heard as cows and sheep make their way to the high country. There is a great peace and tranquility about this area, the remoteness is comforting.
Cloud envelops us and muffle the sounds of cows mooing below us. This part of the trail has very little ascent and descent and makes for a leisurely walk to Rifugio Bonatti.
The clouds fail to holdout any longer, mist quickly turning to rain, changing the landscape yet again. Anne moves with pace to an old ruin seeking shelter and a place to don wet weather gear. Helping her out I brush a plant in the small stone doorway and my hand instantly responds in pain. Stinging nettles, next its the knee before I work out what is going on.
Ruins dot the hillside as we near Bonatti, remnants of a time when the mountains were home. The strong stone walls in place but the tin and timber roofs long given in. They make a beautiful spectacle and great foreground.
The Spring melt is in full swing and its fury cuts the balcony many times with its cascades. In most cases it’s a rock hop or a leap but the last one before the refuge is deep and wide, thankfully their is a bridge complete with flags more at home in the Himalayas.
The winter gets so bitter here the major bridges are helicoptered in and out for the hiking season. With the torrent roaring under us impatient to make it’s way to the valley floor, we stop and take photos with the Grandes Jorasses as our backdrop skulking in and out of the clouds.
Finally Bonatti, or more precisely Rifugio Alpino Walter Bonatti is in site. This is so much more than a refuge, a grand multistory stone Chalet perched high in the opening of the Malatra valley facing bravely onto Monte Bianco (remember we’re on the Italian Side). The great white mountain was not showing itself today preferring to hide in the veil of cloud.
Walter Bonatti was a colourful character and one of the best alpinist the world has ever seen, amongst his climbing success are the Grandes Jorasses, Mont Blanc and the Matterhon. In his early days he was part of the Italian attempt on K2 which would become his most controversial expedition and dog him throughout his climbing career.
The attempt to blame him for a lack of oxygen cylinders for the summiteers caused him to become distrustful and as a result, he subsequently summitted a number of peaks solo earning himself many records. His desire to clear his name got him offside and vilified by the climbing community. However 53 years after the allegations were made they were finally put to rest in 2007 when his recount of events was accepted as completely accurate.
The Rifugio is dedicated to Walter Bonatti and his incredible climbing feats, embodying his alpinist philosophy of aesthetics, history, and ethics.
The rain is coming down hard, pouring off the shingles like a sheet of glass. We duck through the curtain and amongst the other walkers find a dry place to stuff our bags, before welcoming the warmth of its inside.
The place is buzzing and the kitchen is in full action, its a bit early for lunch but a great time for a hot chocolate and we’d been told to expect it a bit differently.
A hot cup of black sludge is placed in front of me, Anne is almost repulsed just at the sight. There is no foam art here, there is no foam! The glistening dark brown surface holds in place so well I can see my reflection in it. Swirling the cup has no effect as the ooze consistency of this concoction holds hard to the mug. It looks like a cup of mud and I half expect it to belch and pop like the hot volcanic mud of New Zealand’s Rotorua.
Tilting the cup upwards, I coax the tar like substance to my mouth. It slowly trickles in thicker than treacle, its sweet, warm, smooth texture exciting my taste buds. It’s dark chocolate like I have never tasted before.
Looking around the dining room I see others with this precious substance drinking it with a spoon a much easier option. This is sugar, jet fuel and I feel my energy levels lifting with every mouthful. I’ve never had another hot chocolate like it, a thing of great beauty to savour.
The break was well timed with the rain cleared we continue on. Following the TMB, Bonatti falls behind the ridge as clouds part and reveal the Val Ferret. To our right is the Grandes Jorasses, stealing our attention from concentrating on the trail. Before long we settle just off the trail for lunch and an opportunity to again be present in this great outdoors. To hear the wind whistle, feel the cool air, take in the mountain view and smell the alpine flowers.
Well rested and relaxed against these behemoths we follow our guide down a little unmarked trail, off the TMB beginning our descent into the valley. The rain has made this a slippery route, a mix of mud and running water. The heath is thick here it doesn’t seem like anyone has walked this in a while. No sooner said we come across people making their way up and instantly we have a traffic jam on this single width foot path.
Safely down we make a tourist stop in Courmayeur, the ski village and gateway to the Italian Alps. it has a quaint little plaza with some great gelati that we all enjoy after another spectacular day experiencing the Monte Bianco area from a different perspective.
Inside the tunnel our guide decides this is a great place to tell us the story of why the traffic is heavily managed in and out of this area. In March of 1999 there was a horrific truck fire that burned for 53 hours at temperatures over 1000C. 38 lives were lost and many more were put in danger.
In the post analysis it turned out to be an explosive combination of cigarette’s, diesel and a cargo of margarine and flour in addition to an uncoordinated two country approach to traffic and emergency management in the tunnel.
Now trucks are thermally scanned, queued and their entry staggered. Safe places behind the tunnel walls have been improved and a fire fighting unit located in the tunnel. We’re thankful for all these improvements and for how they have kept us and many others safe since that time.
The tunnel is an amazing experience at over 2400m underground it is the second deepest in the world.
Back at the Chalet we hear the forecast for light snow down to 2000m. This could make tomorrow’s Lac Blanc walk, the final of our odyssey much more interesting than expected…
Not exhausted enough already we arrive back at the chalet and a fellow hiker and I make an attempt to get to the face of the Les Bossons glacier, but with little preparation, don’t get past the first chalet with low views of the tongue and a tantalising sign that beckons us further, but not today